Simply put, béarnaise sauce is a fat-in-water emulsion. The fat is melted butter and the water is a white wine and vinegar reduction. But since fat and water repel each other, they need a binding agent—here, egg yolks. When combined correctly, the ingredients will form a silky sauce you’ll want to pour in ribbons over steak (or vegetables, or eggs, or your face).
If this strategy sounds familiar, it’s because béarnaise is basically a derivative of hollandaise, the mother sauce you love to pour over your Eggs Benedict. In fact, hollandaise and béarnaise are essentially fraternal twins; the only difference between the two sauces is their flavorings. Hollandaise gets its tang from lemon juice, while béarnaise is flavored with white wine, shallots, and tarragon. Some recipes for béarnaise add chervil as well, so feel free to throw some in during the final blending step if you see fit.
If James Beard were making a béarnaise sauce, he would use a double boiler setup, which requires the chef to furiously beat butter into hot egg yolks and acid, praying that the mixture won’t curdle. Fortunately, we can harness the power of technology to make the process slightly less anxiety-inducing. All you need is a blender and a saucepan—and a group of guests you really, really want to impress.
Here’s how to make a béarnaise sauce, sans recipe:
Start in the saucepan. Combine a hefty splash of both white wine and white wine vinegar in a saucepan. You’ll want to use roughly the same amount of each. Chop a couple of shallots (or one large one) and throw them into the pot along with a few stems of tarragon (save the leaves for later). Boil until the mixture is golden and has reduced to a few tablespoons, then remove the stems.
If you want to make a cheater’s Béarnaise, you can skip the reduction step and simply use a few tablespoons of white wine vinegar, but you won’t get the same depth of flavor.
Melt butter—lots. While the reduction cools, heat your butter in a saucepan (you can use the same saucepan reduced the wine in earlier). To make a cup of sauce, use about a stick of butter. Once the butter has stopped foaming, turn off the heat.
Blend. Place cooled mixture in blender with egg yolks and a pinch of salt.
If you’re using two sticks of butter or less, I recommend two egg yolks. If you’re using three or four sticks of butter (wowza), add three yolks. Blend until combined. With the blender on, slowly start pouring in the melted butter through the opening in the top of your blender. It might help to recruit a friend for this step.
Add a few tablespoons of chopped tarragon leaves to the mixture and blend more. Taste. Add salt and black pepper until the sauce reaches the perfect balance of sweet, rich, and salty. If the sauce is too thick, thin it with a splash of white wine.
Alternative option: Kenji López-Alt of The Food Lab makes his béarnaise and hollandaise sauces in an immersion blender.
Pour, eat. Pour over a steak! Béarnaise would also be lovely spooned over a grilled Portobello mushroom, or used anywhere you would use hollandaise sauce.
And yep, you can make it ahead. Béarnaise sauce can be made a few hours ahead of time. Keep it out at room temperature (in the blender is fine), with a layer of plastic wrap pressed over the top to prevent a skin from forming. Right before serving, add a splash of super-hot water and blend.
What recipes can you make by heart, without a recipe? Tell us in the comments!